When Colonizing The Galaxy, Do As The Romans Do

I was going through some old books to find things to take back to the Strand and I came across a book called Where Is Everybody?. It presents a number of different possible reasons why we haven’t found any evidence of alien life even though the universe is so big and so old that other advanced civilizations ought to exist. This is also known as Fermi’s Paradox.

Seeing this book again reminded me that in college I took an astronomy class and our professor asked us to try to come up with a reason to explain Fermi’s Paradox. Although I had entered school as an astronomy major, I was a Latin major by this point and was taking a lot of classes about Roman history. Because of what I was studying at the time I was coming at this from an unusual angle and I remember the professor mentioning to me that he hadn’t heard my explanation before (I can’t remember if the Where Is Everybody? book had this or not).

My basic point was that one of the big assumptions about this topic might be wrong. It is assumed that if alien civilizations have the ability to travel interstellar distances then they will be able to colonize all of the stars in the galaxy in a relatively short period of time. So, some people argue that there can’t be other advanced civilizations out there since we haven’t been colonized yet.

Using Rome as an example though, I think there is reason to think that there is a natural limit to how far any civilization can expand. If you look at a map of the empire at it’s height, it forms a rough circle centered on Rome. The Roman military could have gone into Scotland, Germany or other areas beyond their frontier, but for practical reasons the extent of their empire was fixed by the speed of travel and communication. If an emperor went to fight a campaign and got too far away from Rome, they became vulnerable to a foreign invasion or civil war since it would take so long to hear about it and then get back home to respond.

This same idea could apply to space faring culture as well. I think it is much more likely that advanced civilizations will stay centered in a small area where communications, travel and trade can happen relatively quickly (unless tesseracts or superluminal flight is possible.). It’s certainly appealing to think of a galaxy wide civilization, like Asimov’s Foundation series or Star Wars, but alien life is probably scattered in isolated pockets and separated by huge distances.

Now that the Allen Telescope Array is starting to begin observations, I guess we only have to sit back, install SETI@home on our computers, and wait to see if we can find out where everyone is.

One thought on “When Colonizing The Galaxy, Do As The Romans Do

  1. Hi!

    I don’t quite agree with your reasoning vis a vis the Roman Empire. The Empire was just that – a political and economic entity, indeed limited by communications and ability to travel. However, the idea of colonising the galaxy shouldn’t be limited by restricting it to a single political or controlling entity. Even the earliest functional colonies will need to be self sustaining and self governing due to the impracticality of relying on the “home” world which sent it. As such colonies themselves mature, they could possibly to send out their own colonists further afield.

    The Roman Empire existed as a territorially limited entity in a world widely settled by humans. There were many more contemporaneous political entities, large and small. The extent of settlement has been restricted by geography and ultimately the size of the world. Space is a tad bigger, so the settlement restrictions are only limited by our ability to get there and sustainably inhabit, not by our communicative limits of political control.

    Perhaps a better analogy would be the Polynesian settlement of the Pacific. Each settlement was usually politically separate from its originator, but there was usually a certain amount of contact between one settlement and its nearest neighbours. Languages evolved as separate groups had minimal contact with others. Indeed we can today chart the path of settlement by the evolution of Polynesian languages.

    It’s indeed a fascinating idea to think of what human-descended societies could come about – likely we would separate into separate species as far-separated groups would not interbreed. Languages would evolve separately too, though if many groups transmit and receive from each other, there would still be mutual comprehension.

    So, if one group develop some useful technology first, they would transmit the details to others. Light speed would be the limiting factor, the furthest away settlements hearing about it last. Of course, there would be transmissions of other news, cultural items, soap operas, etc.

    Of course, all this could change radically if we ever develop faster-than-light communications and travel…

    John

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